Is Getting There Half the Fun?

A teleportation machine might be essential if you want to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the dilithium mining colony on Betazak Nine or conclude a trade agreement for Romulan ale. But back here on earth, do we really need or desire teleporters for our considerably more mundane existences? If we could get places instantaneously, and rid ourselves of travel entirely, would we?

Surprisingly, the answer may be “no.” Research from Patricia L. Mokhtarian and her collaborators, which I’ve been highlighting (here and here) shows that while we might want to cut back on some types of travel in some circumstances, travel itself might have considerable benefits. This is because of the burgeoning number of activities we can do while underway, but even more importantly because of our innate love of aspects of the travel experience itself. These can include adventure, variety, independence, control, status, buffer, escape, conquest, satisfaction of curiosity, the thrill of movement, etc.

Mokhtarian and her coauthors conducted? a survey in the San Francisco Bay area, and in a pair of papers (this one with Ilan Salomon and this with David T. Ory) examined the extent to which people like to travel and why.

Overall, most respondents possessed personality characteristics that we might hypothesize would contribute to a love of travel. Over 90 percent of the sample described themselves as being variety seekers (at least to a moderate degree), almost 90 percent called themselves at least somewhat adventurous, and 80 percent disagreed with the characterization that they like to stay close to home. Two-thirds agreed in whole or in part with the statement that they like to travel at high speeds. Fahrvergnügen, anyone?

Overall, even when instructed to ignore the benefits they get from arriving at their destinations, over 30 percent of the sample said they actually like short-distance travel (under 100 miles), versus only a little over ten percent who reported that they dislike it (the rest were neutral).

More than half of the respondents reported that at least sometimes they travel out of their way to take in scenery and new surroundings, explore new places, relax or just have fun. Over half admitted traveling more than strictly necessary, just for the enjoyment of it. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit to wanderlust; few respondents reported that they travel without an ultimate destination in mind.

Almost half of the sample disagreed with the statement that travel time is generally wasted time. More than a third reported their commute trip serves a useful function, both because of things they get done on the trip and the trip’s psychological value as transition time. More than two-thirds disagreed with the statement that “the only good thing about traveling is arriving at your destination.” Nearly half agreed that “getting there is half the fun.”

The bottom line? Over 60 percent reported being happy with the amount they travel in their lives, with almost 10 percent wishing they spent more time traveling. Forget the teleporter; for those folks, should we bring back the horse and buggy?

As for attitudes towards specific travel modes, do you want the good news or the bad news? Okay, here’s the good news: the most popular form of travel was green and healthy walking/jogging/cycling, with an approval rating of over 60 percent.

Depending on your point of view, you may or may not find it heartening that private vehicle travel was a close second, with almost 60 percent saying they enjoy it.

And the bad news, at least for many of you out there? Only about 30 percent of the sample reported a liking for train/subway/light rail travel, and not even ten percent said they like traveling by bus. These numbers are sobering if you believe – like many transportation professionals, elected officials and others – that luring people onto mass transit is a key to solving our transportation problems. More on the public’s curious schizophrenia about mass transit (most laypeople that I speak to strongly support it – and would virtually never dream of riding it) another time.

Those with long commutes enjoy travel less than those with shorter commutes. In a sense, this goes counter to what we might expect; presumably, people who enjoy travel should choose work and home locations that are farther apart.

However, this finding might fit with an intriguing but controversial theory in transportation: that of the universal constant travel time budget. According to this hypothesis, we humans are somehow programmed to travel a certain amount of time per day – very roughly, about one hour. When this target is violated in either direction, we supposedly change our activity patterns to bring our travel budget into harmony with our primal needs.

Is the stuff you do merely froth on the ocean, dictated by the powerful undercurrent of your need to get to it? More on this from Mokhtarian and collaborator Cynthia Chen next time.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

I walk to work with my dog. I live only 100 yds from my business. To exhaust my dog, we take a short backwards trip through a large forested park accross the street.

So in the morning, we end up taking a 8 minute trip instead of a 2 minute commute. And the squirrels are on alert and know what for.

For Teleporters, make sure any Flies are cleared out of the input chamber. Do you need to travel naked?--that would really anger some of the fundementalists and keep them on the bus.

marcus

I think teleportation would be useful for the day by day transportation. It will be very nice if we could not spend our transportation daily time in traffic, but in other activities.

Dave Hodgkinson

It is better to travel than to arrive.

Apparently.

Ian Kemmish

"This is because of the burgeoning number of activities we can do while underway"

Errr, no it isn't. The "new" activities that people can do while travelling are all pale imitations of what they would be doing were they at home. Just as few people actively prefer dancing to sex, it seems reasonable to assume that few people would prefer travelling and doing something badly with interruptions to staying put and doing it properly.

Buzz Singer

How could air travel be omitted? Perhaps the nightmarish experience that an air trip in the US now is, has put it off the radar in any preference poll.

Eric M. Jones

During the first half of the 20th century, everyone knew that air travel was going to be either--

1) Lighter than air craft, dreamy, luxurious and smooth or,
2) Heavier than air craft, cramped, noisy and dangerous.

Guess who won?

Chris

To me, conflating traveling and commuting invalidates most of the results here. I *hate* commuting (perhaps because I have to drive and can't read, etc. on public transportation) and think flying has become a barbaric way to travel but I don't mind a comfortable train ride or even a coach bus for vacation.

Finn

First, "travel" and "commuting" are separate activities in most people's minds, so conflating the two and then wondering why people who like to travel dislike long commutes makes no sense.

Second, you've failed to notice the likely connection between the popularity of "getting there is half the fun" and going out of their way to explore on the one hand, and the nearly identical amount of people who prefer to travel by driving themselves on the other hand. You don't get to wander off on side trips when your mode of travel is a commercial flight, nor is it any fun to be crammed into a cramped airline seat for hours on end.

Third, you haven't considered the likelihood that 2/3 of respondents like to travel at high speeds because it decreases the amount of time spent in transit. If you ask people whether they'd prefer to travel cross-country instantly by transporter or over 6 hours by commercial flight, I'm sure you'd get a different answer.

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Mark S

I think that if teleportation existed and was used, answers to the survey would be very different. I imagine that there would be a significant part of the population that would like to go to some place exotic for the day, but be back in their home at night. There is something about sleeping in your own bed at night. Even George Bush carried his pillow with him on the campaign trail.

brian d foy

I thought your discussion would go in another direction. This is the freakonomics blog, so what about the unintended consequences of teleportation? Maybe that's what you have coming up, though. Maybe you'll mention the movie Jumper, despite it's overall suckiness.

What if we had teleportation? How would our lives change and would we want those calculations? Let's assume, like you did because it was't a comparison on price, that teleportation isn't too expensive to use and virtually instantaneous. Let's say that the nearest teleportation station is as close as any subway stop in Manhattan and just as cheap, but infinitely faster to anywhere on the planet. With personal teleportation devices, the consequences are even worse.

Imagine a trip to a beautiful, deserted beach for a romantic honeymoon. You tweet "I'm here, but I'm turning off my Blackberry, so see you next week". Or, at least that's what we might do now. But with teleportation, your boss thinks "I'll just pop over quickly to ask about that file" or your friends think "Hey, that beach sounds cool. I'm going too!" Without the supply-limiting constraints of planes, trains, taxis, and so on, your deserted beach turns into a flash mob scene on par with Carnival on Mardi Gras.

Or, how about when you beg off an invitation because it would require too much travel. If you don't want to visit your family on the other side of the country (or planet), you can reasonably say "I can't get the time off" or "I can't afford the plane ticket this year", or some other excuse to stay away from the holiday drama. Who's going to believe that with teleportation? Likewise, who's going to have the excuse for traffic or slow subways for being late? Even though most people realize that these excuses are mostly white lies, they are the sort of lies that lubricate social interactions. If you don't show up, and especially on time, you're now a jerk.

Likewise, what about all the people that you don't want to see? Now they can get to you quite handily, just like answering machines and emails allow people to transmit a message despite your absence, and sometimes especially in your absence. What if you want to visit a small group of friends, but one tweets their location? Again, it's a big party because people can instantly get to you. Or, when your small group of people suddenly discover what looks like a more interesting event, you're suddenly alone. Without a constraint in time, will people constantly jump around in space as much as they surf the web looking for something to entertain them? If you think teenagers are annoying with texting, wait until they can teleport, and their interest is your street corner.

What happens in the next school hostage crisis or OJ trial? Everyone shows up because they can, but like a stadium concert no one can see anything or understand the songs . What about the next Chilean earthquake or forecasted Hawaiian tsunami? People leave because they can, but where do they show up? I went to the Cayman Islands for Y2K so I'd be trapped in a warm place if the world blew up. That wouldn't work if everyone else could easily get there too.

What about flash wars? There's no more Desert Storms, building up armies on the border for six months. What about the the Iranian nuclear plant? Israel sent fighter bombers into Iraq, flying at close to their range, to bomb one plant. Do you think that they'd do the same thing in Iran if the distance wasn't a factor? How many suitcase bombers would instantly show up in Manhattan or Washington DC? Those are the scenarios that science fiction likes to think about.

Your point obliquely notes that traveling might be most of the trip, but you then focused on the mode of travel. What about the other parts of travel, like the time you spend with your travel companions? Walking 18 holes is as much about playing golf as is it spending a couple of hours of time with your golfing buddies. It's no accident that interesting business happens during times like that. Carpooling with the right people has a similar effect.

Imagine only going into the office when you need to be there, and working at home for the rest of the time. However, when you get there, everyone else is doing the same thing. Once the meeting is over, everyone literally disappears, leaving a ghost office behind them. Without being trapped in space, there is no water cooler talk, and maybe no water cooler. Maybe innovation pops up in another way, but how much do we lose out on those accidental hallway discussions that take things in totally new directions? What do you do during your 15 minute break? You don't spin around in your chair to chat with your cubicle mate. You don't find out about tangential information you might otherwise encounter (as beautifully explained in The Social Life of Information, a freakonomics book before anyone knew what freakonomics was)?

And, in the universe of Star Trek, how many good stories would be destroyed if the teleporters weren't broken? They had to remove that ease of travel to have interesting plots longer than three minutes.

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David Hayes

There are many things I'd rather do than spend 10 hours on a plane with a 1 year old but I don't mind my 15minute cycle to work

BenK

New buses... Bolt, etc... with WiFi and so on... are much better than the old ones. But most people haven't tried them.

MikeM

It seems obvious to me that those that want to promote more mass transit should consider the factors that make it rate low on peoples' preference lists. I'm all in favor of buses in theory, but almost every bus trip I've ever taken had some huge negatives. This makes it really hard for me to want to ride buses in the future.

So let's not start with the idea that we need more buses and trains. Maybe we should start with the idea that we should make them more appealing. Then people will actually want to ride them. Then we'll NEED more buses and trains.

Like I said, that seems pretty obvious to me. I hope a future post of yours is about this. I love all your posts. They are the highlights of Freakonomics.com for 2010.

Clancy

If getting things done while you commute is so important, I think we would see mass transit get a higher approval rating. There's a lot more you can get done on the train than you can (safely) driving.

Finn

@MikeM, I agree. I've been riding public transit daily since I was 5 years old, but there a lot of people who avoid it and drive places that public transit would easily take them. They avoid it because it's overcrowded, noisy, unreliable, often dirty, and in a lot of cities, it shuts down before they want to go home if they decide to go out after work. Those issues need to be addressed if we want to get more people out of their cars.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Is teleporting travel fun?

If someone told you to get naked, go into a small, dark enclosed metal chamber, and do not be alarmed by heavy duty electomechanical noises. And you will arrive into the future.

I would bet 99% of travels will be kind of excited or intrigued by this form of travel even if it doesn't transport you anywhere and takes you just 5 minutes into the future. It is more fun than riding a bus, subway or a airplane.

Yep, it is a naked time machine to the near future. And it ONLY takes only 5 minutes! Set time coordinates to 12:05 pm!(current time 1200pm)
Now Get Naked! Excitement Awaits!

James

It seems as though there's a basic problem with counting all walking & cycling as travel. When the dog and I go out for a hike or cross-country ski trip, we always wind up, some hours later*, back where we started. Is this travel? If I bike the 20-some mile loop around the local lake, have I travelled in the same sense that I do when I'd ride 15 miles or so to work?

The same argument applies to driving & flying. A drive on a twisty road (or even, presumably, a race track) in a good car or motorcycle is a fundamentally different experience from a freeway commute, just as taking the Piper out and scaring the coyotes is nothing at all like commercial air travel.

So I'm of two minds on this: for just getting there, I'll take the transporter every time, while the pleasure I get from some forms of travel has little or nothing to do with reaching a destination.

*And aside to #1, if you think you're exhausting your (healthy) dog with an 8 minute trip, you're wrong.

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bree

My family all live 8+ hours away by car or train. I have small children. They make air travel and long distances in the car a huge hassle. If a personal teleportation devices were sold for about the price of a new car, I would be one of the first ones in line to buy one.

robminto

If you had any idea of the travel chaos due to arctic conditions in Europe at the moment, you wouldn't ask such an insensitive question. Thousands stuck away from their families, probably for Christmas. A bit of a no-brainer.

Global perspective too much to ask?

Nikki

It's not the activities you can engage in while on the road, it's the decreased availability of the destinations. If you need to travel for 12 hours to get there, it's an experience you will remember. If you can get there in a heartbeat, there's no longer anything special about it.